Balancing federal budget on backs of our veterans is misguided

If someone serves in the military, he or she has earned the veterans health benefits. It is a promise our nation has made to soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines.

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President Bush's focus on fiscal austerity in his proposed federal budget is welcome. The government simply can't continue to spend more money than it takes in.

But it makes no sense to call for drastic spending cuts when also pushing for deeper tax cuts.

It's particularly misguided _ as well as flat-out wrong _ to attempt to balance the budget on the backs of our nation's veterans. Yet, that's exactly what Bush is trying to do.

Bush proposes a $250-per-year fee for ``higher income'' veterans participating in the Veterans Affairs Health System. The Boston Globe reports that ``higher income'' will be based on local conditions, but that it is expected to be in the $25,000 a year range.

In addition, these, uh, ``fat cats'' making 25 grand or more will have their co-pays for prescription drugs doubled from $7 to $15.

Come on! $25,000? That threshold is hardly ``higher income.'' But even if a six-figure income was established for charging the fee, it would still be wrong. This is a matter of principle, not money.

Americans owe much to those who put their lives on the line in defense of this nation. Most folks understand that. That's why the VA system was established. It was a way to at least try to pay this enormous debt of gratitude.

``Our nation's veterans laid everything on the line for our country,'' Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., said in reaction to the Bush proposal. ``They deserve better than to be nickel-and-dimed.'' They certainly do.

It's particularly egregious to ding veterans in the midst of a war _ a war that is creating daily combat veterans with serious, life-altering injuries and health problems.

Sure, the plan calls for those injured in combat to be exempt from the $250 fee, but anecdotal evidence makes it pretty clear that even wounded vets are going to have to jump through bureaucratic hoops to prove they are worthy of unrestricted health care. It's going to be a hassle for all and mistakes will be made. Some who should be eligible for no-fee care aren't going to get it.

Frankly, it shouldn't make a difference whether or not the health problem was battle related. If someone serves in the military, he or she has earned the veterans health benefits.

It is a promise our nation has made to soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines.

The cost to our integrity _ breaking the promise to veterans _ isn't worth the projected $400 million a year the fee and co-pay would garner. It's relatively nothing in a $2.57 trillion budget.

If the president wants to raise revenue as well as cut spending, it makes far more sense to stop further tax cuts.

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